What Does Professional Mean?

One of the many things I’ve been pondering lately is how we, in the performing arts community, define the word professional. I’d like to hear what you think, because I don’t have an answer. To start us off, lets see what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say.

Professional, adj.

  1. Of, relating to, engaged in, or suitable for a profession: lawyers, doctors, and other professional people.
  2. Conforming to the standards of a profession: professional behavior.
  3. Engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career: a professional writer.
  4. Performed by persons receiving pay: professional football.
  5. Having or showing great skill; expert: a professional repair job.

Thanks, Mr. Dictionary. As you can see, there are a few different accepted usages of this word, but which one to do think of when you hear the words professional theatre? Is it #4, “Performed by persons receiving pay,” or is it more along the lines of #5, “Having or showing great skill; expert”?

There is a big distinction here. Some companies pay their people and show great skill, some pay people with little skill. Some don’t pay and produce very skillful works, and still others don’t offer pay and do sub-par work. Which of these are professional?

Let’s assume that a requirement of professionalism is that the participants are paid. Is there a certain amount that would make a company professional? A gas stipend, hourly pay, a living wage? I’ve seen theatre artists at levels of compensation from nothing to thousands per week, from community theatre to Broadway, who have shown me little or no expert skill. Are any of them professionals?

Maybe money isn’t an issue. Is it a matter of skill? I’ve seen very skillful things happen in all sorts of situations. Once in a blue moon I’ll even see something at a school that impresses me. But wait, if skill is the only criterion, can a student be a professional?

Or perhaps it’s something else entirely. Maybe professionalism is a work ethic, a commitment to one’s craft, a continued passion to strive toward excellence. Not all of these have expert skill and many of them aren’t paid a living wage; are they professionals?

You tell me! Is it a combination of the above? Is it something that’s instinctual that can’t be qualified or quantified? What does professional theatre mean to you?